15 Minutes to Financial Freedom

The email message contained a single-word subject: Help! The sender, I’ll call her Emily, had been asked by her community group leader to give a 15-minute presentation on how to achieve financial freedom. She was honored to have been asked, excited to do it but also panicked by the thought. She asked if I would help.

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My first thought was I can’t even introduce myself in 15 minutes. How could I, Emily or anyone else tackle that subject in just 15 minutes? But then I got to thinking: If money management is, as I believe, not that difficult, why couldn’t she do it? Why couldn’t I do it? I decided to give it a try.

Save. Do not confuse saving money with spending less, as in “I save money when I buy things on sale.” You are not saving at all, you are spending less. Saving money means that you actually put money into a safe place for some future time. Do that. Starting right now and forevermore, make it a rule that you will put some amount of your paycheck into a savings account before you spend any of it. Make it automatic and you won’t miss what you don’t see. Goal: 10-percent of all you receive goes straight into savings.

Selective Focus Makes Life Good

I kinda’ let the cat out of the bag the other day, when I told you that the hubs and I sold our big house and are now living in a tiny apartment.

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But don’t cry for me. We are having the time of our lives.

Living in this tiny space is mostly tolerable because I know it is temporary. I know the exact day, date and time we’re moving out. I’m learning that I can handle just about anything challenging as long as I know it won’t last forever.

I’ve also learned the value and joy of choosing to focus on things that are positive for which I am grateful.

Kitchen. What’s not to enjoy about a kitchen (I use the term loosely) in which I can make dinner, rinse the dishes, load them into the dishwasher, put something into the fridge and move clothes from washer to dryer—without having to take more than two steps. That’s tiny. Amazing, too.

Every Kid Should Have a Real Bank Savings Account

Dear Mary: My son is saving cash in envelopes. That seems kind of cumbersome. What is your opinion? Why not in a savings account and keep tract of the amounts for each category? Dick

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Dear Dick: I agree. Kids need savings accounts. In my book, Raising Financially Confident Kids, I recommend that kids be required to save at least 10 percent of everything they receive in a real savings account, in a bank or credit union.

Of course your son could save more than 10 percent, and keep a record for how much in his savings account he is allocating for say “College Savings,” or “New Bike,” “Summer Camp” an so forth.

Since most banks now allow customers to track their accounts online, your son could watch his money closely via computer or other mobile device.

Tell him that I’m proud of him and those envelopes! Not many kids are aware of how important it is to take good care of their money. But now he needs to learn about a real, live bank, too, by keeping some of his money there.

The Best Ever Cheap Dishwasher

I need to just admit this up front: I am a dishwasher snob. Not only is a dishwasher on my list of life’s must-haves, I need one that works. And by “works” I mean dependably cleans dishes, glassware, silverware and an occasional odd piece or pot. And it has to be quiet.

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I use a dishwasher for more than washing dishes. I wash car mats, baseball caps, small waste baskets and anything else that needs a bath, animals and small children excepted.

Faithful readers will recall that nearly two years ago, my husband embarked on a major remodel of our home. (If you missed that you can catch up by going to EverydayCheapskate.com, then clicking on Mary’s Life to find the story with photos).

Your Consumer Behavior is Keeping You Broke

You know what I love? Walking into my supermarket the day after Thanksgiving and hearing the best Christmas music ever. Yeah! And if I wasn’t in the mood to bake Christmas cookies before I got there, just hearing that lovely music changes everything. Right there, that proves I am a quintessential, typical consumer. That retailer’s got my number.

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While I don’t want to stop loving music (I swoon to the Beach Boys during the summer months because this store has an uncanny way of knowing what I like) what I have changed is the way I hear it while loading up on groceries. They’re doing this on purpose, by design because retailers have irrefutable evidence that the right music can result in increased sales of targeted products. It’s like tasty bait on the end of a sharp hook.

Playing the right music isn’t all that retailers do to manipulate us into dropping more money than we’d ever intended to spend before walking in their store.

Financial Planners and Other Mysteries of Life

I am noticing a growing trend in my mailbox—readers in search of financial planners or advisors. Or assistants. The problem is that when taken in the message’s context it’s pretty clear that not everyone means the same thing when they refer to a financial “planneradvisorassistanthelper”

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One reader wanted to know where to find a “financial planner” who would just take her paycheck, pay all of her bills, invest for her retirement, give her an allowance, balance her checkbook and not charge her very much. (We’d all like one of those, right?)

Then, there are times when the context lets me know that a desperate reader looking for a “financial planner” really needs a reputable credit counseling organization that offers debt management.

And so, in an effort to clarify and perhaps educate, here’s the low down on financial planners.

General. Anyone can call himself or herself a financial planner. If you are ready to seek the services of a financial planner, and to avoid an amateur, you want one who has earned the special credentials of Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC) or Certified Financial Planner (CFP).

Cooking with Coffee

I must admit that I am not a fan of the fancy flavored instant coffee mixes. But as an ingredient in a great dessert? Oh, yes. And what better way to use leftover strong brewed coffee than in fabulous baked beans for your next barbecue or big family gather!

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Midnight Bliss Chocolate Cake

  • 1 pkg. (2-layer size) chocolate cake mix, any variety
  • 1 pkg. (4-serving size) chocolate instant pudding & pie filling
  • 1/2 cup flavored instant coffee, any flavor
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 container (8 oz.) sour cream
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 pkg. (8 squares) semi-sweet baking chocolate, chopped
  • Powdered sugar for garnish
  • Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease a 12-cup Bundt pan or 10-inch tube pan.

Beat all ingredients except chopped chocolate in large bowl with electric mixer on low speed just until moistened, scraping sides of bowl frequently. Beat on medium speed 2 minutes or until well blended. Stir in chopped chocolate. Spoon batter into prepared pan.

Bake at 350F for 50 minutes to 1 hour or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 minutes on wire rack. Loosen cake from side of pan with spatula or knife. Invert cake onto rack; gently remove pan. Cool completely on wire rack. Garnish with a light sprinkling of powdered sugar just before serving, if desired. Cut into 18 slices to serve.

In Search of a Discount on Love

Dear Mary: I work hard every day and don’t have the energy to get out in the evenings. I spend my free time with longtime friends, so I don’t meet single men. I know several people who have found partners online. I’m determined to find a man for myself before the end of 2014. Online dating services may be the way. Are there coupons online for special deals? B.F.

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Dear B. F.: There sure are. Google “Online Dating Coupons” and you’ll turn up a love boat load of online coupon codes for any number of dating sites. Just be careful out there, hear?

Dear Mary: We are better off than most. We have no credit-card debt, we have cash stashed away in a safe in our house and we have about $5,000 in savings. Our 401(k) accounts and Roth IRAs have a total current value of about $50,000. My husband is 41 and I’m 35. We have two kids and college 529 college savings plans for them. Our mortgage is our biggest payment. Should we pay down our mortgage with extra income or put the extra money into our retirement accounts? Peggy

Dear Peggy: My suggestion is that you need to grow your Contingency Fund (emergency fund) first. You need at least enough money in that account to live without any income for six months. That’s probably more than $5,000. I’m thinking at least $20,000. Am I right? Once your CF is fully funded, it’s a tossup on whether you should aggressively invest in paying off your mortgage or invest in the market to build wealth for retirement. I’m sure we could find plenty of experts to argue both options. Personally, I’m really big on achieving 100 percent equity in a home. That means you own it outright, which guarantees you a rent-free retirement. Given the state of the economy and uncertainty in so many areas, that kind of security sounds really good to me.